Cross Country Training – Jumping Ditches with Harriet Morris-Baumber
In the first of a two-part eventing series, trainer and event rider, Harriet Morris-Baumber, offers advice on jumping ditches.
Ditches appear on every cross-country course, from grassroots level through to 5* events, with the depth and width increasing as you move up through the levels.
For some horse and rider combinations, that hole in the ground can prove a daunting challenge and they are notoriously difficult to replicate in training.
Ditches that have a clearly defined edge or are not sunk into the ground or hidden, are not very inviting to a horse. If the edge is slightly hidden it is more likely the horse will spook at the ditch or hesitate while they have a good look at what you are asking them to jump.
If the edges of the ditch are level with the ground, the horse is less likely to hesitate but it is important that the edges are substantial enough to take the force should there be a refusal. Long grass around the edges can also give the illusion that the ditch is hidden.
Shallow and narrow ditches would be where I would start with a young horse or any horse that has never seen a ditch before, gradually increasing the width and depth over time once your horse is confident.
This could be done in one or two sessions or over a greater number of cross-country training sessions, depending on how bold your horse is. Keeping your horse within its comfort zone will build his confidence quicker. Constantly pushing a horse out of his comfort zone may result in a more hesitant horse.
Ditches with water in them, particularly running water, can be very spooky for horses so only attempt this type of obstacle once you are confident that your horse is happy with normal ditches.
Once you have established ditches are not scary and your horse is confidently popping backwards and forward over them, you can introduce a trakehner, which is a ditch with an upright pole, making the jumping effort more of a challenge.
Start with one end of the pole on the floor and one end slightly raised, and then gradually build it up from there. I find a normal show-jumping pole and the telescopic wings very useful in this situation. If the horse has an awkward jump or appears to question what’s being asked of him, always go back to something he is familiar and confident with.
On approaching the ditch, keep your eyes up and focus on a point in the distance to avoid looking down at the ditch. This automatically puts you in the most effective position to encourage your horse to jump the obstacle in front of him.
If you are riding a young or inexperienced horse, approach at a slow but positive trot, to give him time to read the obstacle ahead, as coming in too quick could result in him applying the brakes at last minute.
If you approach in a controlled manner, it gives you chance to sense and react to any wobbles, with an encouraging kick that says ‘go on’.
When a young or spooky horse is faced with a ditch, they might lower their head neck and shoulder to the ground to better assess the situation, so the rider must sit up tall to avoid becoming unseated.
Never flap with your arms or reins as this will only distract your horse’s focus away from the ditch. Your hands must stay still and down at the withers, so you don’t catch him in the mouth if he suddenly leaps over the ditch.
Channel your horse forward in a straight line with alternate kicks and no matter what happens, keep looking ahead and stay in an upright position in the saddle, ready to slip the reins through your fingers to allow your horse freedom of his neck and head.
Your horse will take great confidence from you being assertive. Be firm and clear that you are communicating ‘Yes we can!’ to your horse.
Harriet is available for dressage, show-jumping and cross-country lessons at her base near York.